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Montana tribe to share management of bison range

A Montana tribe will share management of a national wildlife refuge under a controversial agreement being signed today by the Bush administration.

In only the second deal of its kind, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will take over some functions at the National Bison Range, an 18,500-acre property located entirely within reservation boundaries. The tribe's responsibilities will include the biological program, the fire program, maintenance and visitor services.

The agreement is made possible by the Indian Self-Determination Act. In 1994, Congress amended the law, first passed in 1975, to recognize the cultural, legal, historical and geographical connections that tribes have to some national parks and wildlife refuges.

Since then, the provision has only been put into practice once. Earlier this year, the Interior Department signed an agreement with a coalition of Alaska tribes to share duties at the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

But with more than 60 parks and refuges eligible for tribal management, tribes and government officials are running into opposition on all sorts of fronts. Non-Indians, federal employees and national interest groups say the deals set a bad precedent for privatization of public resources.

"The Department of Interior is choosing to leap before it looks at the consequences," said Grady Hocutt, a former refuge manager now with the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a leading group in the fight against the Montana proposal.

For the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, though, sharing management of the bison range is a long-overdue dream. The land was taken without tribal consent in 1908. The refuge's herd descends from animals raised by tribal members.

As one of the first to enter into self-determination agreements with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe has its supporters. Rep. Danny Rehberg (R-Montana) called the tribe's enterprises "second to none." The tribe manages a whole range of services for members, from health care to social services.

"Not only have we taken over administration of these programs, but we have achieved results which we believe strongly vindicate Congress� establishment of the program," said Salish and Kootenai Chairman D. Fred Matt in Senate testimony this past May.

But extending the tribe's domain to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the refuge system, has been a difficult one. Matt said "great resistance" came from agency employees who were concerned about losing jobs or ceding control to a tribal government.

Tribal officials also believe a lot of the opposition is based on racism. Non-Indian residents of the Flathead Reservation are fearful of the tribe's Indian preference policy and question the tribe's management record.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who handles Interior's budget, called for a delay in the approval of the agreement. In a late October letter, he said new information about the cost of the plan warranted "slow and thoughtful deliberation."

Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, has been negotiating with the tribe for more than two years. He has supported tribal management despite objections from lower-level employees.

According to Hoffman and the tribe, the annual funding agreement for the range will cost less than $1 million in the current fiscal year. A response to Burns detailed the costs associated with the project for the next five years.

"Although it has taken considerable time and effort to get to this point,we believe there is great potential for improved cooperation and collaboration" with the tribes, the letter from the Fish and Wildife Service stated.

Once the agreement is signed today in Washington, D.C., Congress will have 90 days to review it. If there are no objections, the agreement will go into effect.

Relevant Links:
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes -
National Bison Range -
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -